The buzz around the film Black Panther has finally died down, giving one time to isolate points of interest outside the popular hype. No doubt it is a great movie, and according to Hollywood, one of the “best reviewed super hero movies”. It is an interesting film from many angles, not least of which is that it elicits a sense of deep pride for Kenyans as we watch Lupita Nyong’o creating an indisputable brand in the international entertainment industry.
The museum scene captures so many aspects of history, museology, colonisation and the awakening of Africans in ways that one can miss altogether in a glance. In the scene, a fellow of African descent (Killmonger) is looking through an impressive ethnographic collection of masks from Africa (West Africa in the movie) but in a British museum.
Hovering and lingering is a battalion of security guards, suggesting that someone is in the wrong place and this has to be the black man given that artefacts belong in museums, in the current thinking. So many things are true in this particular scheme even if the movie is fictional. Museums the world over continue to be elitist, often being exclusive institutions consciously or unconsciously excluding the people whose cultures they display.
TURNING TABLES AROUND
Western museums do have the most amazing and beautiful displays of African collections. Complete with the Mzungu Curator making a fuss over these collections and assuming in a high-handed way that the information she or he has of the collection is true and authentic and there is no room for an alternative narrative. So in the movie the visitor is turning tables around, by correcting the knowledge of the curator, which is ‘assumed’ to be correct in the context of a colonial relic.
This scene is a marvel as a museum visitor also asserts his position, as the ‘boss’ in this public institution as it should be, but rarely is the case. In reality, museum professionals hold artefacts in trust for society and in rare circumstances for the communities to which these artefacts actually belong. He also bursts the museum bubble by letting the curator know that artefacts had identities of real value before they became museum pieces.
The visitor also raises and questions the acquisition of those beautiful pieces in the West, by asking the curator if she thinks her ancestors paid a fair price for them. This sort of makes that particular gallery a source of embarrassment rather than pride, which is how galleries of African collections are viewed in museums outside Africa.
Black Panther also presents a Wakandan society in which there seems to be no disagreement or vehement dissent on the roles of men and women as equal members in a society. Each gender seems to play a role outside the tested and tried, in ways that works well for both genders. More importantly, though, is that men and women have been assigned roles that defy gender stereotypes.
Lupita (Nakia) is a warrior and spy, who spends time out of her own nation. In one of the scenes, she is undercover among a captured group of women from Nigeria, but her only motive is to free them from being enslaved. Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa) is not the typical African ruler. He is benevolent, honourable, yet regal and strong at the same time – the kind of hero the world, most of all Africa, is looking for.
But it is the roles played by Danai Gurira (Okoye) and Letitia Wright that put the battle of feminism to rest. Okoye plays the general of a regiment in Wakanda, when the world still cares to point out the gender of generals who happen to be women. And the most interesting of her scenes is where she tells her partner W’Kabi, played by Daniel Kaluuya, that she would give him up for her country in a heartbeat. It is rare that women nationalists are given a heroic positon above love interests.
Shuri, a young girl in her teens, is the technological guru, who wants to take Wakanda to the next level. She is portrayed as smart, playful and cheeky, secondary to her role as the sister to the King. Traditionally, such roles are played by nerds, usually white college dropouts who wear ten-kilogram-lens glasses.
The film, though about Africa and dominated by a cast of people of African descent, was filmed in Atlanta. There was not a single scene shot anywhere in Africa nor did a single cent of the $200 million that is said to have been spent on production end up in Africa.
Black Panther, however, has a storyline that represents African dreams very well.